Interfaith Family FAQ

At Congregation Ohr Shalom, we take pride in welcoming all kinds of families at various stages of life.  We know that synagogues can be intimidating despite our efforts NOT to be so.  Perhaps, you’ll find some answers to your questions below, and then you’ll feel more comfortable coming through our doors.  If you don’t find the answer to your question here, feel free to reach out to me directly at rabbi@summitjcc.org.

What is “intermarriage”?

Generally, we use this term to refer to a couple in which one member is Jewish and the other is from another faith community.  For centuries, Jews married only other Jews.  That’s just the way people did things.  It was only fairly recently (last 100 years or so) that Jews started finding partners from other faith communities, and we felt compelled to come up with a term for this phenomenon.  Somehow, this was the best we could do.

Why is intermarriage such a big deal to the Jewish community?

The real issue is the miniscule number of Jews relative to the population at large.  In the United States, Jews comprise less than 2% of the population, and that percentage is not getting any bigger.  (We Jews apparently don’t reproduce or immigrate at the same rate as other religions.)  In the mid-20th century – in the years immediately following the Holocaust – the leaders of the Jewish community were convinced that the only way to ensure the continuity of Judaism was for Jews to marry Jews and make more Jews.  As the 20th century came to a close and the 21st century began, we came to realize that sometimes two Jews raise children who have no interest in Judaism and sometimes an interfaith couple raises passionately Jewish children.  The issue is not how much Jewish “DNA” a child has.  To me, the determining factor is what kind of Jewish experiences that child has.  Here at Ohr Shalom, we want to help you provide great Jewish experiences for your children regardless of your faith background.

Does my partner have to convert in order for us to participate in synagogue life, to attend services, come to programs or to join?

NO!  Absolutely not.  For a variety of historical and sociological reasons, we Jews are not real big on proselytizing.  There will be no pressure on non-Jewish partners to convert.

How do intermarried families fit in at COS?

There’s no “cookie-cutter” answer to this question.  Different families fit in differently.  For some families, the non-Jewish partner is as active as – or even more active than! – the Jewish partner.  In some families, the non-Jewish partner stays home and chooses not to participate at all.  Each family has to figure what works for their particular dynamic.  However, you should just know – whichever way you choose to participate, your family is welcome.

Can we join Congregation Ohr Shalom?

Yes!  We have quite a few interfaith families who are members of our congregation.  While there are a few rituals that are reserved our Jewish members – like being called up to the Torah for an ‘aliyah’ – our non-Jewish members participate fully in all the other areas of synagogue life.

Why should we join COS?

If you’ve gotten this far, I suspect it’s because Judaism somehow speaks to you.  You recognize that Judaism has the potential to enrich your life and, perhaps, you want to pass that down to the next generation.  A synagogue is the vehicle for doing those things.  It is a place where you can enrich your life through study, spirituality and service to the community.  It is also a place where your kids can get turned on to the beauty of Judaism.  Most importantly, it is a place where you can meet other people who are on a similar journey.

What are some of the best things about COS for intermarried families?

Ohr Shalom is a place where the members of your family can find a comfortable way to engage with the Jewish tradition.  Whether you are a beginner or an advanced student, whether you are a toddler or a retiree, there’s something here for you.  In particular, for intermarried families who are looking for ways to integrate Jewish traditions and customs into their home, I think we have a lot of ways to help make that happen.

What does it mean to convert? How does it work?

Although we don’t actively proselytize, if someone is interested, we do accept converts.  Someone interested in converting – from another faith tradition or from no faith at all – should contact a rabbi (like yours truly!) directly.  The first step is to engage in a period of study.  Rabbis want to be sure that a potential convert is making an educated decision. This period of study usually lasts about a year, which gives a person the opportunity to experience the entire Jewish calendar at least one time while asking lots of questions.  After that year of study, the potential convert meets with three rabbis – called a “Beit Din” or Rabbinic Court.  Although this sounds intimidating, it is usually a very warm, exciting experience.  Once the rabbis determine that the person seriously wants to be Jewish, the potential convert is immersed in the ‘mikveh’ (ritual bath). Then, the person receives a Hebrew name (s/he chooses it after some research) and is welcomed into the Jewish community.  By way of full disclosure, a male who wishes to convert must go through circumcision (by a physician, under anesthesia).  If he was medically circumcised at birth, then a drop of blood is simply removed from the site of the circumcision.  This ritual is called ‘hatafat dam brit.’.

Can my kids attend the nursery school?

Yes!  Absolutely.  Our nursery school is open to the community.  While members of the congregation get priority in registration, we are happy to welcome children from all sorts of families.

What about religious school?

Yes!  For Kindergarten through Third Grade, we welcome all children in our school even if they are not fully Jewish according to Jewish law.  From Fourth Grade on, a student must either be the child of a Jewish mother or a Jew-by-choice (although it’s a bit clunky, we like this term better than “convert”).  Fourth grade is when we give out dates for Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, and a child must be Jewish to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  So, in order to avoid a situation where some kids are getting dates and others are not, we want all of our Fourth Grade students to be ritually Jewish.

Can we have a baby-naming or “bris” or “brit” (circumcision) ceremony at Ohr Shalom?

Yes!  We’d be thrilled to celebrate the arrival of your child with you.  If you choose to celebrate here, we only ask that you observe “kashrut” (the dietary laws).  We can help you find a kosher caterer if you’d like. Even if you don’t have the ceremony here in our building, I’d be happy to help you choose a Hebrew name for your child or officiate at a baby-naming ceremony in your home.  If you need assistance finding a “mohel” (one who is trained to perform ritual circumcisions), we can help with that too!

Can our children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah?

The Jewish children from an interfaith family may become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah – assuming that they go through all the education and preparation.  There are two parts to a child being Jewish for Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  The first is the child’s Jewish status.  So, if s/he was born to a Jewish mother or if s/he has converted to Judaism through immersion in the ‘mikveh’ (ritual bath), then s/he is Jewish.  To become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, though, there is a second part.  The child must decide that s/he wants to be Jewish.  Becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a public declaration of one’s intent to be a part of our covenant with God.  So, if a child or family has not yet decided which faith tradition is the right one for that child, then it might not be the right time for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  It’s never too early to begin the conversation with me about this important lifecycle event.

What about my non-Jewish partner and Jewish lifecycle events?

At Ohr Shalom, we realize that there would be no Jewish lifecycle events without the support and approval of the non-Jewish partner.  We wish to honor the non-Jewish partners who make these moments possible. So, for baby-namings and Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, we gladly welcome non-Jewish partners up on the ‘bimah’ (altar) in our sanctuary to join in these sacred moments.

Can Rabbi Friedman and/or Cantor Roth officiate at a wedding between a Jew and a non-Jew?

Ohr Shalom and our clergy are part of Judaism’s Conservative Movement.  Our understanding of a Jewish wedding is that it is the union of two individuals who are each a part of our unique covenant with God.  Thus a rabbi’s – or a cantor’s – authority to officiate at a wedding comes from the participants’ being a part of that covenant.  When one of the participants is not a member of the covenant, the rabbi or cantor no longer has the authority to officiate.  Similarly, even though civil law allows a rabbi or a cantor to officiate at the marriage of two non-Jews, Jewish law says that we have no authority to do so, and therefore, we would not officiate.

Can Rabbi Friedman and/or Cantor Roth officiate at a funeral for an interfaith family?

This is a complicated question because it depends on who passed away and how they connected religiously in life.  If the person who passed away was a part of another faith community, then the funeral should take place under the auspices of that other faith community.  Of course, our community would be there to support an interfaith family during their period of mourning.  If, however, a non-Jewish member of our community who was not a part of any other faith community, who – despite never converting – saw our community as their community, then we would, of course, officiate at the funeral.

What if we are raising our children in both religions?

Although many people try this, it’s actually a tough thing to do.  When children have parents from two different faith traditions, of course they should be exposed to both.  However, when you get down to it, religions have differences and contradictions.  For example, on the subject of Jesus, how can one be both Christian (accepting Jesus as the messiah) and Jewish (rejecting Jesus as the messiah) at the same time?  At some point, a family needs to decide one way or the other.  We are always respectful of both faiths, but we believe that it is simply not possible to be both.  So, in our congregation, we ask you to make a determination by the time a child enters Fourth Grade.  The reason for this seemingly-arbitrary cutoff is rather simple:  Fourth Grade is when we give out the dates for Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  See the answer above for more details about this process.

Do you offer religious counseling on issues of intermarriage?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I would be happy to sit down with you and start discussing the issues.  Religion and marriage are two of the most complicated things in life.  When you combine them, the degree of difficulty only increases exponentially.  So, let’s start the conversation.

Shalom,

RAF.

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